The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, and Carolyn Fiddler, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, James Lambert, and David Beard.
• NV-Sen, NV-03: Can Democrats be this lucky? Businessman Danny Tarkanian, a deeply flawed perennial candidate who has lost five races as a Republican in the Silver State, had been considering another bid for the 3rd Congressional District, but he announced on Tuesday that he’ll mount a primary challenge from the right against GOP Sen. Dean Heller. Heller is likely the most vulnerable Republican senator facing re-election next year since he’s the only one whose state voted for Hillary Clinton, and Heller already has a major Democratic opponent in the form of Rep. Jacky Rosen.
Tarkanian may have notoriously failed to win public office yet, but his unrelenting conservatism and famous name—his father, Jerry Tarkanian, was the legendary UNLV basketball coach—keep helping him snatch the GOP nomination. Tarkanian’s most recent election saw him run for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District in the Las Vegas suburbs in 2016. Little Tark beat then-state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, the party establishment’s preference, in the Republican primary, but Tarkanian went on to lose 47-46 to Rosen herself even as Trump flipped that seat and won it 48-47. Tarkanian’s previous failures include losing a race for the 4th Congressional District in 2012 and the Senate in 2010.
One reason Tarkanian would be such a weak candidate if he ousts Heller to secure the nomination is his record of failure in his business career. Tarkanian and his family had guaranteed bad loans in a venture to build an “equestrian destination resort.” He then had to declare bankruptcy in 2012 after being hit with a $17 million judgment and ended up settling the matter for $525,000. Democrats mercilessly attacked Tarkanian as a shady businessman last year on top of using his several failed runs for office to portray him as a desperate power-seeker. Team Blue would likely be pleased if next year’s Senate contest turns into a rematch of Tarkanian and Rosen on even bluer turf.
However, the Republican primary is another matter entirely. Heller found himself between a rock and a hard place during the GOP’s deeply unpopular effort to pass a health care bill. Heller attempted to distance himself from some of the harshest aspects of the GOP’s proposal—namely slashing Medicaid in a state that had expanded it—but in the end he tried to have it both ways by voting for some versions of the bill and opposing others.
With the bill having failed—at least for now—Heller has engendered hostility on both his left and right flanks. Indeed, a recent PPP survey found Heller deeply underwater with just 22 percent approving and 55 percent disapproving. While Heller’s standing may improve as health care fades from the news, his opponents won’t be keen on dropping the politically potent issue.
Another recent poll by Strategic National tested a GOP primary matchupbetween Heller and Tarkanian and found the incumbent only had a 38-34 lead, while Heller’s approval rating was also upside down with Republicans at just 31 percent approving and 43 percent disapproving. However, Heller is unlikely to go down without a stiff fight. The Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, which has strong ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has promised it will spend seven figures to boost Heller in both the primary or general election if necessary. SLF spent a hefty $14 millionon Nevada’s competitive 2016 Senate race, so their planned involvement is no small matter.
Contending with an unpopular Republican in the White House, representing a genuine swing state, and emerging bloodied from his party’s health care failures have left Heller uniquely vulnerable next year. Even if he successfully fends off Tarkanian, a vigorous primary challenge could force the incumbent to tack to the right and leave him damaged once he faces an even stronger Democratic foe in the general election.
• AL-Sen: Sen. Luther Strange’s latest ad in Alabama’s Senate special election Republican primary continues his camp’s line of attack against Rep. Mo Brooks for opposing Trump in his own words during last year’s presidential primary. The spot plays clips of Brooks saying “I don’t think you can trust Donald Trump with anything he says” and calling out Trump for his “callous insults” and “belittling” rhetoric. Strange then accuses Brooks of still harboring opposition to Trump by playing a more recent clip where Brooks states “I have never taken back any of the words or comments I made …” supposedly in reference to Trump.
Meanwhile, Politico reports that Strange’s backers at Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund have begun shifting their focus from hammering Books to attacking former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. That pivot likely indicates that they’re confident about Strange snagging one of the two runoff spots after next Tuesday’s primary, which would be consistent with the handful of publicly released polls of this race.
Moore himself is firing back against the Senate Leadership Fund with his own latest ad. Moore’s cheaply produced spot attacks Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his “D.C. slime machine” for spending millions to lie about him. It then argues that Moore will stand up for conservative ideals, fears God, and “believes what we believe,” an unsubtle attempt to appeal to Alabama’s large bloc of religious conservative voters. Moore closes by advocating voters “drain the swamp” in Washington.
• IN-Sen: State Rep. Mike Braun became the latest Republican to join the race against Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly next year after he kicked off his campaign on Monday. Braun has had an extensive business career that includes owning the distribution company Meyer Distributing, and he recently told Indy Politics that he is willing to spend enough of his own money to be competitive against his GOP primary rivals. Braun will need all the help he can get to boost his name recognition in a primary that already includes well-funded Rep. Luke Messer and will likely also see fellow Rep. Todd Rokita launch his own campaign soon.
•FL-Gov: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum received some welcome news on Tuesday when a grand jury cleared him of any wrongdoing regarding his office’s use of an email system that had been paid for with $5,000 in public funds. Gillum had used the software, known as NGP VAN, on his mayoral campaign in 2014 and continued to use it to communicate with constituents after getting elected. Last year, though, a state trooper filed a criminal complaint alleging that Gillum had engaged in “grand theft” and “official misconduct” by using the service for political purposes, prompting an investigation.
The grand jury, however, rejected the trooper’s allegations entirely. IT found that 102 of 106 emails sent using NGP VAN were ordinary communications, concerning “a variety of local and regional community organizations and events,” while Gillum himself had no involvement with the four emails that may have been political in nature (or, in fact, any of the emails). In addition, the grand jury found that there was no evidence that the two staffers who were responsible for sending emails had any criminal intent that could sustain a charge of theft.
The question now for Gillum is whether, with this matter behind him, he can right his struggling campaign for governor. Gillum’s fundraising began suffering badly after this nagging story emerged, and his top staffers quit last month before any replacements could be announced. If Gillum can now start bringing in real money, though, he still has a shot, because none of the other leading contenders in the Democratic primary have raised a ton so far. But he’ll have to move fast to reassure donors and supporters that he’s still in this thing.
• KS-Gov: Assuming that GOP incumbent Sam Brownback is confirmed by the U.S. Senate as ambassador for religious freedom, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer would become Kansas’ new chief executive. Colyer sounded very interested in running for governor next year even before Brownback’s nomination was announced, and on Tuesday, Colyer confirmed that he would seek the GOP nod for a full term.
However, even a Gov. Colyer wouldn’t have a smooth path through the primary. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is leading Trump’s bogus “Election Integrity Commission,” kicked off his bid for governor before Brownback hit the eject button, and he’s made it clear that he’s not dropping out for Colyer. Businessman Wink Hartman and ex-state Sen. Jim Barnett, who badly lost the 2006 general, also refused to halt their campaigns. And just a day before Colyer made his announcement, state Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer also announced that he would run for the Republican nomination.
As the Kansas City Star’s Steve Kraske recently wrote, Colyer’s main problem seems to be that he doesn’t really intimidate anyone in the Republican Party. Colyer was Brownback’s running mate during both his successful 2010 and 2014 bids, but few voters pay much attention to the second name on the ticket, and lieutenant governors rarely attract much public interest. Kraske also writes that Colyer has a reputation as an awkward campaigner.
It doesn’t help that Brownback is extremely unpopular in this very red state. The current governor’s reactionary tax cuts have devastated Kansas’ economy, and the GOP-dominated legislature recently voted to override Brownback’s veto to repeal them. Colyer himself hasn’t established much of an independent image, and with even a significant number of Republicans angry with the status quo, that’s a huge liability for him.
Once Brownback leaves, Colyer will have a chance to introduce himself to voters. However, it may take months for Brownback’s confirmation to wind its way through the Senate, and unless he decides to resign early, Lt. Gov. Colyer will need to wait a while before he can get the public’s attention. Colyer is a wealthy former plastic surgeon, and he should have the resources to get his message out. Still, he has a lot to prove if he’s going to win what’s shaping up to be a tough primary next year. Democrats are also hoping that Brownback’s awful legacy will tarnish the eventual GOP nominee, no matter who it is.
• ME-Gov: Longtime Republican Sen. Susan Collins has been the metaphorical elephant in the room in Maine’s gubernatorial race for much of this cycle, since Collins has previously said she won’t make a decision on whether to run until the fall, even though her candidacy is widely seen as a significant possibility. Former state Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew isn’t waiting on Collins, though, since she kicked off her campaign two months ago. Politico relays that a new PPP poll somewhat surprisingly finds Mayhew with a 44-33 lead over Collins in a hypothetical Republican primary.
Collins has routinely been one of the country’s most popular incumbents, and she won significant crossover support from Democrats in her last few re-election battles. However, her steadfast opposition to the GOP’s health care bill has likely angered the Republican primary base, creating an opening for an insurgent challenger to attack her for insufficient conservatism in the closed primary.
However, one major question mark in this race is what role Maine’s new instant-runoff voting system will play after voters passed it at the ballot box in 2016. While the system will likely face lawsuits over its implementation for state-level general elections, it’s more likely than not to take effect for primaries and federal general elections.
This new electoral system could make it harder for Collins to win the Republican primary with a plurality simply based on her universal name recognition if it becomes a more crowded affair. Even if instant-runoff voting doesn’t take effect for state general elections, Collins still might have enough sway with voters to mount a successful independent candidacy rather than face a difficult primary.
Of course, Collins has had opportunities to leave the GOP before in a state that’s long been unusually open to voting for independents, but has nonetheless remained within the party. If Collins does run for governor next year, she may find that her years of vocal strategic opposition to conservative hardliners has seriously endangered her ability to win the Republican primary in pursuit of winning over swing voters in this light-blue state.
• NY-Gov: Actress Cynthia Nixon, whom the Wall Street Journal recently reported was considering a possible challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in next year’s Democratic primary, has now publicly declined to rule out a bid. Appearing on the “Today” show on Tuesday, Nixon said, “I think there are a lot of people who would like me to run,” though she wouldn’t confirm whether she actually would. She did spend a fair bit of time hammering the governor on disparities in education funding.
The response from Cuomo’s camp was notable for two reasons. First, that there even was a response at all: In 2014, Cuomo literally refused to even acknowledge the very existence of his primary opponent, Zephyr Teachout—even when she approached him in person at a parade. Second, it was remarkably restrained. A spokesperson would only say, “We know Ms. Nixon is a passionate advocate for education, and we would be happy to sit down with her anytime to talk about it.”
For a notorious counterpuncher like Cuomo to back off, he’s either drinking Demerol milkshakes these days, or he recognizes that Nixon’s status as a celebrity non-politician makes her untouchable—for now. If she joins the fight, that’ll all change quickly.
• VA-Gov: Virginia Commonwealth University released its first poll of Virginia’s upcoming November elections and shows Democrat Ralph Northam leading Republican Ed Gillespie 42-37 for governor, delivering Team Blue some good news even if the field dates of July 17 through 25 are a few weeks old by now. Publicly available polling has been relatively limited since the June 13 primaries, making it hard to get a firm sense on where the race stands right now, but Northam has either tied or led in all of them.
VCU also gave Democrats near-identical leads in the contests for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Furthermore, the poll found that voters preferred Democratic control of the legislature by a 48-41 margin, which could augur toward major Democratic gains in the heavily gerrymandered state House of Delegates (the state Senate isn’t up for election this fall).
• WY-Gov: We finally have an important development in the slowly-moving GOP primary to succeed termed-out Gov. Matt Mead. Wyoming political columnist Bill Sniffin writes that Cynthia Lummis, who represented the entire state in the House for four terms, informed her supporters three weeks ago that she wasn’t running. Lummis hasn’t said anything publicly, but a state GOP consultant confirms to the National Journal that Lummis is a no.
Sniffin wrote that earlier this year, Lummis was “lining up supporters earlier this year and looked like a shoo-in to me,” so it’s very possible that other potential Republican candidates were waiting to see what she did. So far, the only Republican to announce a bid is businessman Bill Dahlin, but it’s not clear how serious he is. However, state Treasurer Mark Gordon and Secretary of State Ed Murray have both expressed interest, and a GOP consultant tells the National Journal that they could both self-fund.
• IL-06: Democrats already have a crowded primary to take on Republican Rep. Peter Roskam in this upscale suburban Chicago-area seat, but it may grow even more crowded still. Crain’s Chicago Business reports that Democrat Trevor Orsinger, an executive with financial company CME group, has been reaching out to potential backers as he considers a bid, but Orsinger has not said anything about his interest publicly yet.
Roskam hasn’t had a close race since Democrats drew his seat to be safely Republican in the latest round of redistricting. However, the well-educated district flipped from 53-45 Romney to 50-43 Clinton, leading the party to take a closer look at targeting Roskam next year.
• MT-AL: Attorney John Heenan kicked off his campaign for Montana’s sole congressional district on Monday, becoming the first Democrat in next year’s race against recently elected GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte. Heenan works as a consumer-protection lawyer and owns a restaurant in Billings, but has not run for office himself before.
Gianforte won an expensive and divisive special election this past May in which he violently assaulted a reporter on the eve of Election Day. That incident sparked widespread condemnation, but Gianforte ultimately prevailed over Democrat Rob Quist by a 50-44 margin. Gianforte later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and avoided jail time in favor of community service and anger-management counseling, but Democrats will undoubtedly hope that the whole affair has left the incumbent tarnished in next year’s election in this usually red-leaning state.
• NJ-11: Woodland Park Mayor Keith Kazmark, a Democrat, had previously been mentioned as a possible House candidate next year, but had so far not said anything about his intentions publicly. However, Kazmark recently filed with the FEC to run and announced that he is “exploring” a campaign for Congress in the Morris County-centric 11th District. Kazmark still faces re-election this November, and may be waiting until afterward to formally declare that he’s running for higher office. Woodland Park only has about 12,000 people, meaning he’ll likely be starting out with relatively little name recognition in the district.
Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen has never faced a close race in this suburban district, but the highly educated seat swung from 52-47 Romney to just 49-48 Trump, while the incumbent played an instrumental role in shepherding Trump’s health care bill through the House. However, Kazmark would first have to secure the Democratic nomination if he hopes to take on Frelinghuysen. Passaic County Freeholder John Bartlett and former federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill are both already running for Team Blue.
One other Democrat won’t be joining them, however, as longtime Assemblyman John McKeon announced on Tuesday that he won’t run. The national party had reportedly been recruiting McKeon earlier in the cycle, but he may have wanted to avoid a competitive primary to face the entrenched incumbent. Sherrill’s campaign in particular had raised $244,000 last quarter and already snagged endorsements from major Democratic-leaning organizations like VoteVets and EMILY’s List, though this primary is still far from settled.
• VA-02: Democratic state Sen. Lynwood Lewis finally went on the record expressing interest in a possible bid for House next year in the Virginia Beach-based 2nd District. The National Journal reports that Lewis had previously declined to run for this seat back in January, but revealed he began to reconsider in May as all the “craziness that’s going on in Washington” persisted. Lewis will reportedly make a decision in September. As the state senator for Virginia’s Eastern Shore and a good chunk of this House seat, Lewis would be a solid recruit for Democrats against first-term Republican Rep. Scott Taylor, who won’t be easy to beat in a seat that favored Trump 49-45.
• WA-08: On Monday, pediatrician Kim Schrier became the newest Democratic candidate to launch a campaign against Republican Rep. Dave Reichert in Washington’s 8th District, which spans from greater Seattle’s eastern suburbs across the Cascades. Schrier does not appear to have any previous political experience.
Reichert hasn’t faced a close re-election battle since his seat was made redder to protect him in the last round of redistricting, but it still favored Clinton 48-45, giving Democrats hope that it could be vulnerable in a wave election. Schrier joins a Democratic field for the top-two primary that includes Issaquah City Councilor Tola Marts and employment attorney Jason Rittereiser.
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